I am not generally unhappy with my model of how the universe works. Yes, it would be pleasant if there really were a beneficient creator-god and an afterlife; it would be nice if “good government” were actually a sustainable possibility rather than a fond but deluded hope in the minds of statists; it would be just peachy if wishes were horses and everybody could be happy and rich. But I’m reconciled to these things being not true because it seems to me they are necessarily not true – that is, for example, I cannot imagine a universe in which the actual existence of an intervening creator-god is actually compatible with the observed regularity of natural law, nor a universe in which scarcity and agency problems do not imply that governments are subject to the iron laws of political economics.
Other people can imagine theism or statism to be true, and so could I at one time – before I understood enough to grok the contradictions they would entail. But I’m not actually writing to argue for anarchism or atheism today; I brought those up as examples to make a more subtle point. It seems to me it’s actually more difficult to deal with unpleasant possible truths that are only contingent, because you can imagine how things could be different if you lived in a universe that was slightly different but recognizable.
I’ll give two examples of this that I’m still struggling with. One: I fear feminism may be dangerously wrong. Two: I fear that the crowd calling for the abolition of all forms of intellectual property may be dangerously right.
I like living in a society where women are, generally speaking, as free to choose their own path in life as I am. I like strong women, women who are confident and look me in the eye and see themselves as my equals. But I wonder, sometimes, if sexual equality isn’t doomed by biology. The relevant facts are (a) men and women have different optimal reproductive strategies because of the asymmetry in energy investment – being pregnant and giving birth is a lot more costly and risky than ejaculating, and (b) a woman’s fertile period is a relatively short portion of her lifetime. Following the logic out, it may be that the consequence of sexual equality is demographic collapse — nasty cultures which treat women like brood mares are the future simply because the nice cultures that don’t do that stop breeding at replacement rates.
I’ve written before about how property rights are underpinned by Schelling points — places where the cost of rights enforcement rises discontinuously, creating boundaries that rival claimants can agree on even if they can’t signal each other reliably. I’m disturbed by the fact that even though I’ve been thinking about the matter for years, I haven’t found any Schelling points in the theory of IP rights that look really stable. This suggests that the IP abolitionists may win the argument in the end. That could be very bad, because there are important kinds of creative work I don’t see how to fund without IP rights that allow creaters to capture positive externalities. I’m not worried about software, because that can be funded from its value as an intermediate good; I’m worried about music and novels and artistic goods with economics like those.
The difference between these two cases and my first two is this: I know nothing about the universe that makes it impossible that women should have longer fertile periods. And there might be Schelling points in IP that I haven’t found yet because I’m looking in the wrong places. I hope so, anyway.
I haven’t gone into depth about any of these arguments because the specific beliefs I’m examining are not really the point of this essay, and you can’t address my issue by attacking them (that’s a hint to commenters, yes indeed it is!). What I’m actually poking at here is the nexus among belief, emotion, and imagination. The question I would like to hear from commenters about is this: If there is something that you don’t want to be true, but fear might be, and (like me) you’re pretty compulsive about following the evidence and the logic even if it leads you to unpleasant conclusions — how do you cope?
Am I alone in feeling like unpleasant but necessary truths are easier to live with than unpleasant but contingent ones, or does this tell us something general and interesting about the psychology of belief maintainence?
UPDATE: Some people have gotten the wrong impression. I didn’t ask “How do you cope?” because I’m having an existential crisis or anything, it’s that I’m curious about the range of cognitive and emotional strategies involved. I’m an engineer, I cope by finding the largest problem I can wrap my head around and attacking it with vigor; if we all do that, maybe we’ll win. It could be said that my strategy for emotional coping is “don’t be passive”.